Jury Awards Rabbi's Rape Victim $20M

by Christopher Peak (New Haven Independent)
May 18, 2017

Hartford -A federal jury Thursday ordered prominent Rabbi Daniel Greer and his Elm Street yeshiva to pay a former student $15 million in compensatory damages because the rabbi raped and repeatedly abused him 15 years ago. The jury awarded an additional $5 million in punitive damages, to pay the lawyers.

In adjudicating a civil lawsuit brought by Eliyahu Mirlis, a former high school student at the Yeshiva of New Haven, the jury deliberated in U.S. District Court here for 12 hours over two days before coming to its unanimous decision.

The eight jurors slapped Greer with the eight-figure bill for the emotional suffering he caused Mirlis by assaulting and battering the boy over a three-year period, from his sophomore to senior years at the high school. The panel calculated the total after also concluding that Greer and the yeshiva had shown recklessness and intentional infliction of emotional distress and the school separately had displayed negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

That sum was less than half of the $38 million that the plaintiff's attorney, Antonio Ponvert III, had requested.

Jurors also requested that the court nail Greer with extra punitive charges to pay Mirlis's lawyers. That added another $5 million to the bill.

"This completely justified all my faith in the justice system. Even an incredibly difficult case can be resolved fairly on the facts," Ponvert said. "What the plaintiff suffered and what has been suffered by children for generations need to stop, period. Child abuse, in all forms, is a plague that we all need to work together to stop."

When asked why he believed his side prevailed, Ponvert responded, "The truth."

Greer's defense said the rabbi plans to appeal the verdict.

“We are extremely disappointed by the jury’s verdict, and intend to pursue all potential options to set it aside, including an appeal,” defense attorney David Grudberg wrote in an email.

The verdict followed a suspenseful four-day trial here at U.S. District Court, with a cliff-hanger ending about whether the yeshiva was also liable.

Two victims — Mirlis and the yeshiva’s assistant dean, Aviad Hack — both described their underaged sexual encounters with Greer in graphic detail. Shira Mirlis, the victim’s wife, said the abuse had hardened her partner, preventing him being vulnerable. An expert in childhood sexual abuse and a University of Connecticut professor, Julian Ford, explained to jurors that the inability to trust was an normal response to “betrayal trauma,” as he diagnosed Mirlis with post-traumatic stress disorder.

From Greer’s side, the jurors didn’t hear much of a denial. The rabbi repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. (He denied only one accusation: That he’d had sex with Mirlis on a forested parcel of land in Hamden.) The defense’s other witnesses presented only mitigating evidence: Neither the rabbi’s wife, Sarah Greer, nor his secretary, Jean Leadbury, had noticed anything unusual, they testified. The team’s defense instead, relied heavily on a set of cheery wedding photos showing Mirlis continued to maintain a relationship with his abuser, honoring the rabbi at life milestones.

Final Stabs At Character Assassination

The final day in federal court Wednesday wrapped up with attorneys presenting 40-minute closing arguments from a podium arms-length from the jury box. The lawyers’ summations of the case volleyed from high-minded (with references to the Founding Fathers) to ad hominem (with accusations of deception and cheating).

Ponvert, Mirlis’s counsel, said the two victims’ testimony and an expert’s diagnosis proved the accusations against Greer were more likely than not true — meeting the lower standard, a preponderance of the evidence, used in civil suits as opposed to in criminal trials.

Ponvert, from the firm Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder, argued that the yeshiva also deserved blame. Hack, effectively the school’s manager, had suspected the rabbi was abusing Mirlis, once even trying to beat down a locked door where Greer was having sex with the boy inside. He failed to report his suspicions to child welfare and law enforcement authorities as required by law.

The defense, Ponvert added, still hadn’t fleshed out its counter-arguments: why Greer couldn’t deny the accusations, why Mirlis would want to attack someone he revered, why Hack admitted to only one sexual encounter as a student if he truly wanted to bring down the rabbi, and why the University of Connecticut pyschiatry professor might have been so “duped” by his client.

In closing, Ponvert asked for $38 million in damages to repay Mirlis for his stolen childhood and his pain since. He argued that Mirlis’s first experience with intimacy should have been dating a girl he loved. “Not a forced kiss, not fellatio, not anal sex. Not with a man and not with a rabbi. Not pseudo-romantic nights in motels with alcohol and hot tubs. Not coerced intimacy but real intimacy,” Ponvert said. “What this man did to Eli Mirlis has affected him in such a way that he cannot have a trusting relationship. And at the end of our lives, ladies and gentlemen, what do we all have but relationships with people that love us and the people we love, the moments we share with them and the experiences that bond us? Eli doesn’t have that.”

When defense attorney William Ward stood up, he first thanked the jury for being in attendance — “more than I can say for the plaintiff,” the lawyer added, pointing out that Mirlis had been largely absent throughout the trial aside from a few hours on the stand Monday afternoon. He then argued there was no hard evidence of abuse in the exhibits. He called Mirlis a “liar” and a “cheat.”

“That’s not even an inference; it’s an admission,” Ward said. Mirlis “told you some other lies, big or small.”

The defense attorney made one last attempt to explain why Greer hadn’t denied the accusations. Because Mirlis had spoken with police a year ago, keeping silent on “anything that tends to incriminate you” by pleading the Fifth would be “wise,” Ward explained. “That could mean anything that puts Mr. Mirlis or Mr. Greer alone in the same room during four years in high school, anything.” He added that Ponvert had fired “loaded questions” throughout the trial, cornering Greer into remaining silent.

Ward repeatedly sought to impeach Mirlis’s credibility. Mirlis, for example, testified that his grades suffered when he rebuffed Greer’s entreaties, but Ward pointed out that his report card didn’t reflect this, with five As and two B-pluses in classes Greer supposedly taught.

Several times, though, Ward himself twisted Mirlis’s testimony to make it sound deceptive. In one misrepresentation, Ward claimed Mirlis had lied about when he first informed his wife about Greer’s abuse. Ford, the UConn psychiatrist whom Ward described as a “hired gun,” said Mirlis kept the molestation secret during couples counseling — a fact that wasn’t incompatible with Mirlis’s account of first telling his wife when they were dating. But Ward conflated the two, making it sounds like Mirlis had misled someone. That’s despite the fact that Mirlis testified, under oath, that Ford didn’t ask when he first confessed to his wife, so he didn’t tell the psychiatrist.

In another attempt to portray Mirlis as dishonest, Ward said Mirlis had lied about having sex with Greer repeatedly for 26 hours at a hotel in Paoli, Pennsylvania. Ponvert had indeed tried to portray the stay as an overnight orgy, but Mirlis had corrected him on the stand. To avoid violating the Sabbath, Mirlis indicated that they had sex only before Friday’s sundown and after Saturday’s sundown. By closing statements, Ward had reshaped that exchange to look dishonest. “It’s not ‘the 26-hour sex-fest’ that he told you in direct, isn’t it? It’s a lie, it’s a lie,” Ward claimed.

Ponvert fired back with a seven-minute rebuttal, calling Ward’s speech the “most bizarre and inaccurate” closing statement he’d heard in his career. Flustered with anger, he paused once to compose himself.

“I’m so frustrated I don’t know what to say at this point. Everyone wants this man out of here!” he exclaimed, his voice rising. “He’s [Greer’s] a child molester.”

Ponvert ended by saying it had been an honor to represent Mirlis, as well as a weighty responsibility. “I share that with you,” he said. “I ask you to accept that burden.”

“Dunkin’ Donuts Please”

During the two full days that jurors argued in a locked room, starting at 11:35 a.m. on Wednesday, the rabbi paced around the courtroom, asking his lawyers about court procedure, gossiping with his wife about spectators and making several trips to the bathroom. Sarah Greer serenely read a book in the stands.

At 3:03 p.m. on Wednesday, jurors knocked on the door to indicate they had a question. They handed an unsigned, yellow sheet of paper to the marshal. It read, “If we finish this evening, will [we] be able to render a decision tonight or still have to come back tomorrow?” Judge Michael P. Shea sent his deputy into the room to let them know that if the court accepts their verdict tonight, they wouldn’t have to return.

At 3:19, they sent out another note. “We could use fresh coffee and donuts. Dunkin’ Donuts, please.”

The jurors sent out a note at 4:35 p.m. asking to replay Hack’s deposition. At 5:01 p.m., a second note said they’d finish deliberations on Thursday.

Back in the courtroom at 9:10 a.m. on Thursday, jurors examined the last 20 minutes of Hack’s deposition. Under pressure by Ward to name exact dates when Greer had sex with him as a student, Hack said he could not remember a single instance, aside from the first fondling. In the same clip, Hack said he knew about mandatory reporter laws, “certainly by 2007” — two years after Mirlis graduated.

For nearly four hours, the jury discussed whether the yeshiva had been negligent. After lunch, they wrote in a note that they couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict on that specific charge.

At 12:51 p.m., Judge Shea asked them to shrug off any fixed conclusions and reassess the evidence. “This is an important case for all parties. Therefore it’s important for you to reach a verdict without anyone surrendering a conscientiously held view,” Shea said. “There does not appear to be a reason why this case could be tried better or more exhaustively on either side, nor that any other men or women will be more intelligent, more impartially chosen or more competent to decide the case than you.” He added that jurors in the minority, in particular, should reexamine why more of their colleagues had tipped to the other side. “Take as much time as you need to discuss things; there is no rush.”

At 3:39 p.m., the jury handed back their ruling. After reading through verdict form, count by count, each juror stood individually to affirm agreement with the decision.

The defense team left silently, hurrying outside into oncoming traffic. Red-faced, Greer hugged Ward in the parking lot behind the courthouse, then slid into his minivan.

Beginning in the 1980s, Rabbi Greer oversaw the revival of the neighborhood around his yeshiva at the corner of Norton and Elm streets, renovating neglected historic homes.

Over the years, Greer has also crusaded against gay rights in Connecticut, at times played an active role in politics and government, and advocated for keeping nuisance businesses out of the Whalley Avenue commercial corridor. He and his family earned national attention for exposing johns who patronized street prostitutes in the neighborhood, for filing suit against Yale University over a requirement that students live in coed dorms, and then in 2007 for launching an armed neighborhood “defense” patrol and then calling in the Guardian Angels for assistance to combat crime. In the 1970s, Greer also led a successful campaign to force the United States to pressure the Soviet Union into allowing Jewish “refuseniks” to emigrate here and start new, freer lives.